Megan Connolly Stitt
As someone who has lived in their hometown for 98% of their 25 years of life, I’ll admit that I was pretty nervous about adjusting to life in Korea. Like most EPIK teachers, I had done some research about what life would be like as I prepared to live away from friends and family in a one-room apartment on the other side of the world. Reality is - you never really know what to expect. Reading hundreds of articles can never produce the real experience, and online threads seem to vary greatly between their optimistic hopes and pessimistic experiences.
All the buildup amounts to this: the first night alone in your apartment in Korea. Your friends from orientation have been whisked away on buses across the country, your co-teacher has helped you buy essentials, but you’re still missing some key items, and your life sits before you in one, or a few, big suitcases. And you ask yourself: what will you do next?
The first few months in Korea for this February’s intake have been a bit different than those of previous EPIK teachers. Most of us are just beginning to start teaching in the classroom, something we expected to do months ago. As I write this essay, today is the first day students have actually come to my school. The transition into being a native English teacher is only just beginning, but the transition to Korea in general has flowed much smoother than I ever thought possible.
To my grandmother’s un-researched surprise, all the comforts of home can be found in Korea. Need something quick like Amazon? Order from Coupang or Gmarket. Need to browse aimlessly through a Target alternative to de-stress? Go to Daiso; it’s cheaper too. Public transportation is better than where I’m from, takeout is impossibly faster, and there’s a lot more free Wi-Fi. Daily life has seemingly been an easy switch, with many apps to help navigate the bus system, and tons of restaurants with picture menus because I’m not that good at Korean yet.
Besides being away from family and friends, the language barrier has been the hardest part for me. I studied a bit of Korean before coming, enough to ask where the bathroom is and maybe communicate a sentence or two, but I was still shocked at how hard communication can be. Many people who have traveled probably know this, but having never spent a significant amount of time abroad, this reality hit me hard. I suddenly feel like I’m the one in elementary school, with so little language to express myself. The amount of conversation that gets lost in translation, or the thought that you simply have no idea what someone is trying to say, is shattering as you realize you yourself do not have the basic abilities to communicate verbally. It makes me want to study harder. I have so much newfound respect for my co-teachers who translate and teach with me, for my Korean friends who effortlessly speak English, and for my students as they continue to learn a second language.
Despite the communication struggles, however, I’ve been amazed at how much kindness breaks through the barriers and transcends languages. The teachers in my office and at my school go out of their way to have small conversations with me, even when we both get confused or struggle to relate our thoughts to each other. Older people at the park have beckoned my foreign friends and I over to receive free rice cakes and fruit. One even offered free coffee out of their own thermos (which we didn’t take due to the global pandemic), but the gesture was comforting nonetheless. Our landlord and coordinator went out of their way to take us to meals and make sure all of our necessities were set up. The Korean friends I have made are always making sure I get the best experience while I’m here, ready to help when needed and to introduce me to new things and places.
This transition hasn’t been entirely easy, as I’ve left out the concerns due to Coronavirus and its many effects. I know that this intake has been greeted with some disappointment about not being able to teach or travel yet, but Korea itself has been so welcoming and bright, from its culture to its people. We still have so much time left in Korea, time that I’m sure will include struggles, but more importantly will be full of kindness, learning, and new experiences. I’m happy to be here, and I can’t wait to start teaching soon.